Biden’s dug a hole for himself, but he keeps digging

Falling in the polls, president picks partisanship over moderation, unity

Instead of changing course amid a big slide in the polls, Joe Biden is doubling down on progressive policies and politics, Winston writes.  (Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images)
Instead of changing course amid a big slide in the polls, Joe Biden is doubling down on progressive policies and politics, Winston writes. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images)
Posted September 15, 2021 at 6:00am

Ed Koch, the late colorful mayor of New York, was famous for asking his constituents, “Hey! How’m I doin’?” That’s a question most politicians ought to ask once in a while, never more so than Joe Biden as his summer slide accelerates into a grim September of one crisis after another. If public opinion polls are an indicator, he’s not going to like the answer he’s going to get.

In essence, political surveys are the statistical equivalent of Koch’s trademark question. Most surveys test what people think of the job Biden is doing as president of the United States. While surveys test a range of questions in different ways, two standard questions form the basis for analyzing the current political strength of any president and his administration: The president’s overall job approval and approval of his handling of voters’ top concern.

In other words, “How’m I doin’, overall?” and “How’m I doin’ on the No. 1 issue to most voters?” — currently and usually, the economy. Biden’s numbers aren’t good on either.

A steady decline

Over the past month, survey after survey has shown a steady decline in his job approval ratings, with many now finding him underwater, with disapproval higher than approval. Our Sept. 4-6 Winning the Issues survey found Biden’s job approval below 50 percent for the first time since he took office and barely above water at 46 percent approve to 44 percent disapprove. 

For some perspective on just how steep a decline that is, our February survey put Biden’s job approval/disapproval at 57 percent to 30 percent. Given that roughly 158.6 million people voted in the last election, that means the president has lost 17.4 million voters who once approved of his job performance and 22.2 million more now disapprove. Sobering numbers for a White House mired in both foreign and domestic policy crises.

But it’s the economic job approval numbers, especially with independents, that ought to be a red light flashing in the West Wing. Biden has gone from 55 percent to 35 percent approve/disapprove seven months ago to 45 percent to 47 percent today. That’s a jaw-dropping 22-point net flip, only slightly less than his overall job approval net drop of 25 points.

What should be even more concerning for Biden and his party is his decline with independents, a trend I first mentioned in an April 28 column entitled “Independents will decide when Biden’s honeymoon is over.” Biden’s overall job approval rating with independents has gone from +18 points (48 percent to 30 percent) to -14 points (34 percent to 48 percent), a 32-point turnaround. Meanwhile, his economic job approval rating with this key group went from 43 percent to 38 percent approve/disapprove to 33 percent to 50 percent, again, a significant change of 22 points. 

Because the economy is the No. 1 issue, we asked people whether they thought Biden’s economic policies were correct or incorrect.  In February, 47 percent of voters called them correct with 35 percent saying incorrect. Today, only 40 percent of the public believe they are correct, while 44 percent disagree. Only about a quarter of independents (26 percent) agree with his economic policies, while 47 percent don’t.

It is clear that the majority coalition that elected Biden last November is no longer intact.

À la Titanic

This is a moment when most politicians would follow Will Rogers’ sage advice, “If you find yourself in a hole, stop digging.” Yet, Biden and Democratic leaders seem to be handing out more shovels, not for roads and bridges or to end the growing number of crises in the country but to push through what The Associated Press calls a “far-reaching package that touches almost all aspects of domestic life.”

Last week, when moderate Sen. Joe Manchin III, D-W.Va., called for a “strategic pause” on Democrats’ $3.5 trillion spending package, Chuck Schumer, sounding more like the captain of the Titanic than Senate majority leader, rejected that idea out of hand, promising, “We’re moving full speed ahead.”  

Biden and Schumer ought to listen to Manchin, who seems to have a better understanding of where voters are than either the White House or the Democratic leadership. In our September survey, we tested two of Manchin’s statements on the Democrats’ $3.5 trillion proposal:

Statement 1: “The proposed $3.5 trillion in new spending isn’t to solve urgent problems, but to re-envision America’s social policies.”

Statement 2: “Spending trillions more dollars not only ignores present economic reality, but makes it certain that America will be fiscally weakened when it faces a future recession or national emergency.”

A wide majority of respondents agreed with Manchin’s first statement, 53 percent to 23 percent. Not only did Republicans believe this (54 percent to 27 percent), but Democrats did too (59 percent to 19 percent). Liberal Democrats agreed with the statement at an even higher level, 64 percent to 17 percent — a clear indication that the goal of the legislation is social reengineering rather than solving urgent problems.

Almost half of respondents (49 percent) agreed with Manchin’s second statement, while only 30 percent disagreed. Two-thirds of Republicans believed this (68 percent to 17 percent), while only a third of Democrats did (33 percent to 46 percent). Importantly, independents agreed with Manchin on both statements — 45 percent to 24 percent and 47 percent to 24 percent, respectively — validating the West Virginia Democrat’s position as a bona fide centrist in the Senate.

One of the most difficult moments for any president is when it becomes clear to voters that his policies are failing and his numbers slide. When that happens, the first group to move is usually independents. That’s exactly what we’re seeing now.   

On Biden’s short eight-month watch, Americans have seen his management of the COVID-19 response falter, a disastrous Afghanistan withdrawal, a continuing crisis at the border, rising inflation, a worrisome economy and a growing credibility problem for this president.  

Rather than keep his promise to voters of moderation and unity, he has gone to his base and squandered the goodwill and support of the American people by sacrificing his majority coalition on the altar of progressive politics and policies. Instead of changing course, he and his party are about to propose the largest spending bill in history, with staggering tax increases as the economy sputters. And they intend to do it with the barest of majorities in Congress and Biden’s job approval ratings in dangerous territory.    

Passing this kind of sweeping legislation would be difficult in the best of circumstances. But when people disapprove of the job you’re doing, when they’ve been disappointed and disillusioned, they will be far less open to listening to a partisan appeal for “reimagining” America.

David Winston is the president of The Winston Group and a longtime adviser to congressional Republicans. He previously served as the director of planning for Speaker Newt Gingrich. He advises Fortune 100 companies, foundations, and nonprofit organizations on strategic planning and public policy issues, as well as an election analyst for CBS News.